Tag Archives: Studies

Electricity from trees


Researchers have figured out a way to ‘plug’ into electrical power generated by trees.

It has been a well known fact for years that plants can conduct electricity (humans can too, take care kids), and now scientists from MIT found out just how much they can pack up: 200 millivolts of electrical power (=0.2 volts).

The lemon and potato battery experiments are already notorious, but this is something else.

“We specifically didn’t want to confuse this effect with the potato effect, so we used the same metal for both electrodes,” said Babak Parviz, a professor of electrical engineering at Washington University and co-author of the study.

They found out that a maple leaf for example can generate a steady voltage of more than a hundred milivolts. However, in order to become practical, a much higher voltage would be necessary, so researchers built a boost converter capable of picking up really little voltages and storing them and then producing a greater output.


By hooking the device to a tree using electrodes they were able to generate an output voltage of 1.1 volts, which is not really much more than a promising start, but it’s enough for low power sensors. The full study will be published in the upcoming issue of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Transactions on Nanotechnology. It’s not really as practical as other options, but it could prove to be quite significant especially for different types of sensors.

“Normal electronics are not going to run on the types of voltages and currents that we get out of a tree.” Parviz said. “As new generations of technology come online, I think it’s warranted to look back at what’s doable or what’s not doable in terms of a power source.”

Devil’s Claw brings new hope for arthritis

devilsclaw03webDeep in one of the warmest places on the planet, in the Kalahari desert, there lies the ‘Devil’s Claw’, a plant that may hold the key to effective treatment to arthritis, tendonitis and numerous related illnesses that affect millions and millions each year. Despite being a ‘desert plant’ the Devil’s Claw doesn’t thrive in extreme drough, like the one the Kalahari desert has seen in the past few years. This lead the plant to the brink of extinction so scientists are trying to find out ways to grow it, or grow other plants that produce the same valuable chemicals, or produce the chemicals in a lab.

Today was the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS). At that meeting, they described the first successful method of producing the active ingredients in the plant, ingredients that have already made the Devil’s Claw sought after by more and more people who use it as alternative medicine – with amazing results. Researchers hope this will eventually lead to ‘biofactories’ that could produce huge quantities of the needed substances at low costs.

They started studying this plant when they found out that native populations from South Africa have been using it for generations in a number of conditions, from fever and diarrhea to serious blood diseases.

“In Germany, 57 pharmaceutical products based on Devil’s claw, marketed by 46 different companies, have cumulative sales volumes alone worth more than $40 million.”, said Milen I. Georgiev, Ph.D., who delivered the report

“The Devil’s Claw faces significant problems with its natural renewal, especially low rainfall,” Georgiev notes. “These problems are driving efforts to find alternative ways to produce high value compounds from the plant, independent of geographical and climatic factors,” he says.

Another extremely interesting fact (though not directly related) is that 25 percent of ALL medicines prescribed in industrialized countries comes from plants, most of which are endangered, so these biofactories that could ensure fast growth rate and genetic stability for the necessary plants could be crucial.

“Our target aim is to develop such technology, so we are paying attention not only to fundamental scientific tasks, but also to those related to some of the technological problems associated with hairy root biofactories,” Georgiev said. “It is the desire of each scientist is to see the fruits of his work. In the current case, we hope to be able to develop cost-effective laboratory technology for production of these pharmaceutically-important metabolites within the next five years.”

The neurobiology of music

Music has traditionally been something scientists have found hard to characterize – it is basically a form of social communication between individuals, and whether you’re humming the song from a commercial or soloing around Hendrix style you are communicating, expressing something. If done by parents around infants, it attaches the little ones to them and also increases their chances of being more social in the future.

brain waves

In a recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Helsinki the neurobiological basis of music in human evolution and communication was evaluated by studying some genes associated with cognitive functions. For this, they used genes from 343 family members from 19 Finnish families that had at least some professional or amateur musicians in the family.

They made the subjects take three tests the Karma music test and Carl Seashore’s pitch and time discrimination subtests. They were also asked to fill in a self reported questionnaire. This questionnaire was really something interesting and intriguing, charting the participants creative functions in music (how they improvise, compose and arrange music).

Music is social communication between individuals,” says Liisa Ukkola. “Darwin proposed that singing is used to attract the opposite sex. Furthermore, lullabies are implied to attach infant to a parent and singing or playing music together may add group cohesion. Thus, it is justified to hypothesize that music perception and creativity in music are linked to the same phenotypic spectrum of human cognitive social skills, like human bonding and altruism both associated with AVPR1A. We have shown for the first time in the molecular level that music perception has an attachment creating impact.”

Satellites Confirm Half-Century of West Antarctic Warming

Antarctica Global Warming

Temperature variation in Antarctica; red means hotter

Despite whatever you may hear, it’s obvious that we still don’t have a clear understanding of the impact we’re having on the planet we call home; there are studies that show we’re totally destroying it, and there are studies that we’re an ant on a mountain, so it’s really hard to say for sure how much damage we cause. We do cause damage, it’s just about the significance of the damage we are causing.

The Antarctic Peninsula provides very valuable clues regarding those aspects, as it’s a pretty good meter of what’s going on with worldwide climate, and despite the fact that a portion of it has been somewhat instable, most of it didn’t suffer from significate temperature changes. But recent studies confirmed what numerous scientists suspected to be true:

“Everyone knows it has been warming on the Antarctic Peninsula, where there are lots of weather stations collecting data,” said Eric Steig, a climate researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle, and lead author of the study. “Our analysis told us that it is also warming in West Antarctica.”

Scientists came to this conclusion after analyzing results from historical temperature data from ground-based weather stations and also results from more recent times. They tried to gather as much data as possible to fill in the gaps, and they pretty much managed to do that; they used a statistical technique to fill in whatever gaps still remained.

The conclusions were pretty dire. The Antarctic temperature has increased by about 0.12 Celsius degrees per decade. The whole area is very vulnerable to climate shifts, especially the west side, and if the West Antarctic sheet temperature goes below freezing, the sea levels will rise with about 6 meters.

Older men want younger women, science shows

Feeling the need for scientific research to back up the ‘dirty old men’ myth, Gothenburg University and Oxford University scientists performed a study on 400 lonely hearts ads to see how men and women choose their partners. What they wanted was to test some theories about how men and women pick their partners in general.

By examining these ads, they found out what any man in his right mind already knows (this applies to most, not everybody). Women search for solid resources and an established social status. As a result, men often include ‘large house’ and ‘economically independent’ in their ads.

Men search for younger women, only about 1 man in 100 searching for a woman of similar or older age. However, young women search for older men. Actually, almost all women under 60 search for older partners. After they hit that magic number, they start thinking about younger partners (yeah, really).

“When it comes to physical characteristics, it turned out that men and women were the same. Both used words like, ‘athletic,’ ‘beautiful,’ ‘pretty,’ ‘tall,’ ‘handsome,’ and ‘trim’ to the same extent, and this goes both for their descriptions of themselves and for the characteristics they were looking for in a partner,” says Jörgen Johnsson at the Department of Zoology, University of Gothenburg, one of the researchers behind the study.
“This might indicate that men have learned to respond to women’s interest in looks, therefore stressing to the same extent their attractiveness in the ads. The fact that both sexes focus on looks may also be influenced by our times, with the great fixation on appearance in the media.”

African cities and their ecological impact

No other continent in the world (that’s not counting Antarctica) is studied by less ecologists than Africa; that is actually paradoxal, because cities are growing here faster than any other continent on Earth. Just less than a century ago, 5% of people lived in urban areas, while now, almost 40% call a city their home.

This rapid growth is causing numerous problems that are (or at least, if I’m mistaking, seem) overlooked by almost everybody. Very few ecologists are actually studying the n environment and effect of cities on rural areas.

Despite the fact that the areas with many problems (such as hunger, virtually lack of hygiene, lack of water, diseases, areas controled by rebels, etc) haven’t improved almost at all (except for the first two perhaps), the other safer and wealthier parts of Africa have developed significantly, creating a gap between the two. The desire for charcoal, oil and wood are causing deforestation.

But perhaps, as Joy Clancy from the University of Twente claims, the biggest problem could be around the periurban areas, where huge portions of wood are being cut down to allow agriculture. Add this to an increased demand of water and the disposal of garbage in the water, and you get to a very siginificant damaging impact. So what could the solution be?? First of all, an improvement of the tools and techniques of agriculture could bring an increase of productivity so there would be no need for other areas. Still, people have the tendency of asking for more and more, and as long as the law isn’t applied more strictly there, the chances of accomplishing ecological progress are practically inexistant.

‘Beauty Machine’ turns average into knockout

Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, or at least that’s what we used to hear as kids from our parents. Well, scientists say our parents were wrong; after creating a computer that recognizes attractivenes in women , now they managed to create the world’s first beauty machine. While this machine can’t (yet) make you a knockout, it can make a picture of you be way more beautiful.

Researchers at Tel Aviv University invented this machine that turns pictures of average people into something that could twist the mind of many. Despite the fact that currently it works just in digital format, as it is developed it could guide plastic surgeons and even become a feature incorporated in cameras.

“Beauty, contrary to what most people think, is not simply in the eye of the beholder,” says lead researcher Prof. Daniel Cohen-Or of the Blavatnik School of Computer Sciences at Tel Aviv University. With the aid of computers, attractiveness can be objectified and boiled down to a function of mathematical distances or ratios, he says. This function is the basis for his beauty machine.

“We’ve run the faces of people like Brigitte Bardot and Woody Allen through the machine and most people are very unhappy with the results,” he admits. “But in unfamiliar faces, most would agree the output is better.” Prof. Cohen-Or now plans on developing the beauty machine further — to add the third dimension of depth.

Why Women Get More Cavities

It’s not because they deserve it, if that’s what you’re thinking – you mysoginistic bastard; and it’s not because they’re just much sweeter than man.

Actually, the old tale that a woman loses a tooth every time she delivers is not as far from the truth as you’d think. A study published in this month’s issue of Current Anthropology concluded that women have had more problems with teeth since our ancestors became farmers, about a hundred thousand years ago.

But the implications are way more subtle than you would think; the women who were settled around farms were more fertle than the hunter gatherers and thus they gave birth to more children. This caused changes in their hormones and saliva secretion which caused damage to the teeth. Researchers have known since the 1980s that this change caused decay in the teeth of women, but they didn’t understand the causes.

Most of them attributed this to the change of lifestyle and diet, as they started to eat more grains, which contain sugars. They believed that this change applied more to women because they prepared the food and had more access to it, and they ate snacks more often.

“You increase carbohydrates and generally you increase the incidence of dental caries,” says anthropologist Clark Spencer Larsen of Ohio State University in Columbus.

This also brought some other significant biological changes, according to anthropologist John Lukacs of the University of Oregon in Eugene. As it turns out, how much having babies affects tooths can be calculated. Lukacs agrees:

“Our new task is to partition the factors that cause caries–how much is caused by biology and how much by culture,” he says. “It’s not all or nothing–it’s a mixture.”

Superstar: A MAD Mobile Chinatown

China is developing, exploding and growing. This is how MAD architects begin their presentation of Superstar, a city that resembles no other. It will be featured in the exhibition’Uneternal City’ in Venice, and the project called ‘Superstar: A Mobile China Town’ is an amazing blend of technology and nature, of mankind and outside factors.

The Superstar will have the ability to provide housing for about 15,000 people and feature health resorts, sports facilities, and even drinking-water lakes. This is the amazing response the people of MAD managed to give to this redundant, boring, and unpractical way of developing things China Town, and not only; it’s truly a slap in the face.

This self sustaining city will produce its own power, recycle all the waste, and even feed some energy to the outside world. Also, it will be able to travel around the world, sharing Chinese culture with the cities where it will remain. According to sources, the first destination will be near Rome, where it will provide “an unexpected, ever-changing future imbedded in the Eternal Past”.

It’s not yet certain if the full size model will actually be built, people are invited to Venice to see the model. Designed as a place where there are no leaders, no prisoners, and nothing is wasted. A university, factory, and recyciling facility all at once. This could actually be the city of the future, but the near future probably doesn’t have any plans for this.

Hubble Finds Unidentified Object in Space, Puzzles scientists

It’s obvious for everybody that more and more interest is being put into space flights, and we’re approaching another era in this field. There’s a good reason why astronauts have it so hard and why they take so many chances; every once in a while, they find something that just bafflesc scientists and that’s impossible to explain, at least at first.

Such was the case with the case published in the Astrophysical Journal, just a few days ago. Scientists reported that they have located an unidentified object, virtually in the middle of nowhere. They actually characterized it using the words “We suggest that the transient may be one of a new class”.

What’s even more surprising is that it also came out of the middle of nowhere, and astrophysicists have no idea how far it is; they know it can’t be closer than 130 light-years and further than 11 billion light-years. The object just wasn’t there before, it is now, and it doesn’t behave in any known way, making us get to this simple conclusion, that they have no idea what it is.

The thing they do know is the fact that it’s not a supernova, and it appeared outside of any known galaxy, in a cluster named CL 1432.5+3332.8 (no, that shouldn’t tell you anything). Hubble noticed a spark which led to this discovery. So if there’s not any dust on the lens, scientists are dealing with something they have no idea about. So there’s nothing to be worried about.

Century old milestone broken: spotless month for the Sun

Our old Sun has broken a milestone that has not happened for almost a hundred years, as an entire month has passed without a single sun spot being noted. This is relevant because many climatologists believe there is a tight connection between solar magnetic activity which is responsable for the sun spots and climate on earth.

Acording to the UCLA observatory from Mount Wilson, more than thirty days have passed without a single sun spot. Data concerning this type of solar activity has been gathered for more than 200 years, and the last time such an event has been recorded was 95 years ago.

When the sun is active, a solar activity of 100 or more sun spots is not that uncommon. Every 11 years, solar activity slows down, nearing zero, but it usually rises again pretty fast, as a new cycle begins.

The fact remains that this period lasted 42 days, and it’s the first time it lasted for more than a month since 1913. It’s not still fully certain what effect this type of solar behaviour will have, or even if it will have a significant effect at all, but most scientists believe there will be some implications, despite the fact that they don’t agree on them, as the relationship between the sun and our climate is much more complex and harder to understand.

Ear infections make fat foods sound better

the human ear

the human ear

It may seem weird, but ear infections don’t attack only your ears, but your weight too. If you get them during your childhood, there’s a big chance you will develop a taste for fat foods, and thus this affinity will probably lead to obesity. Scientists that made this study suggest that this appears because middle ear infections could affect the nerve that carries taste information to the brain.

Severe childhood ear infections (which require antibiotics) double the risk of obesity, according to psychologist Linda Bartoshuk of the University of Florida in Gainesville. This comes as a result of the predisposition to fat foods, researchers say. Three quarters of children develop at least an ear infection by the age of three and a third of all children have at least three infections by that age, with significant chances of a severe episode.

Bartoshuk says that frequent (despite not severe) ear infections can lead to a permanent damaging of the chorda tympani nerve, which is responsable for picking up sensations from the front of the tongue and goes to the brain, passing through the middle ear. This appears to make people want fat foods, but not by a direct mean, but by a more subtle link. This team showed that chorda tympani damage intensifies the sensation of the texture of fatty foods, which is naturally associated by the brain with energy density.

“Damage to taste makes oral touch feel more intense.” People who’ve had ear infections would then just receive more intense sensations from creamy, slippery foods.”

Basically speaking, this heightening of sensations could go both ways, meaning that it would be possible for fat foods to be less apealing too; however, this doesn’t seem to happen too often, scientists concluded. They wanted to be sure these findings were accurate, so they waited.

“We did not want to go public with this because it’s the sort of thing that frightens people.”

Mexican mangroves ‘vital for fishing industry’


A few days ago, I wrote about the damage that a well intended, but wrongly conducted mangrove restoration could cause; the article itself was focusing on the Philippines. It is time to underline (again) the importance that they have on ecosystems which rely on them way more than you would probably guess.Just a few days ago, Mexican researchers have showed just how important mangrove abundance is for the local fishing industry and economy alone. The mangroves have been affected by tourists and the local shrimp farms, which are quite numerous in the area, destroying trees and wetlands and replacing them with beaches. Octavio Aburto-Oropeza, a researcher at the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation, at the US-based Scripps Institution of Oceanography analyzed data over 4 years, from 2001 to 2005, and found old and new arguments that support the importance mangroves have as nursery and feeding ground for a significant and vital part of marine wildlife.

“In the Gulf of California, 32 per cent of the varieties of fish and crabs with commercial importance are related to the local abundance of mangrove,” Aburto-Oropeza told SciDev.Net. They even manage to make an estimate of the economic value of the forests, though it has to be clearly understood that the commercial interests come, or at least should come, in 2nd place. I also doubt how accurate this estimate can be; but even so, the value which they found ($37,500 per hectare per year) is way bigger than the benefits that other activities bring.

So it should be understood that after a first glance and a thorough analysis, green initiatives and wealth have to go hand in hand; it’s not how it should be, it’s not how it will be everywhere, but it is how it will go most of the time. So aside from understanding the virtually unlimited environmental value that certain plants, animals and areas (such as mangrove forests) have, we have to understand their economical value too.

Report shows California has 99% chances of big earthquake in 30 years




I’m not fond of alarmist theories or “bad things are happening, fast” attitude, but… bad things are just going to happen soon in California. The likelihood of a major quake of magnitude 7.5 or greater in the next 30 years is 46%-and such a quake is most likely to occur in the southern half of the state.

USGS geophysicist and lead scientist Ned Field and his team used a new model to determine the probability of big quakes. This model combines information from seismology, earthquake geology, and geodesy. Here’s what he had to say:

“This new, comprehensive forecast advances our understanding of earthquakes and pulls together existing research with new techniques and data. Planners, decision makers and California residents can use this information to improve public safety and mitigate damage before the next destructive earthquake occurs.”

The probability of a magnitude 6.7 or larger earthquake over the next 30 years striking the greater Los Angeles area is 67%, and in the San Francisco Bay Area it is 63%, similar to previous Bay Area estimates. So the odds are not that great; hopefully, preparations will be done.

Mysterious compound could in fact be the key to ocean life


To understand this, you need just a very basic knowledge of chemistry, nothing fancy. When small parts of organic matter break down, they could go into rivers or ponds where they could cause a buildup of yellow-brown organic matter that amasses as the tiny plants die. Of course, this matter decomposes into something which is called chromophoric dissolved organic matter (CDOM).

In fact, its origin is well known in coastal and inland waterways, but as far as oceans are concerned, scientists know have far less info about it. Heterotrophs (microscopic organisms that can’t produce their own food, such as bacteria) are believed to be responsable for the production and release of the organic chemical compounds into the environment. What researchers do know is that CDOM, when struck by sunlight, plays a critical role in ocean chemistry, having a significant impact on the greenhouse gas emissions that can in turn warm the planet, sulfur compounds that can cause cloud formation that can cool the planet, and iron concentrations that are critical to ocean plants.

If scientists are gonna be able to solve its misteries, they will have a better understanding of life in the oceans and how marine organisms are affected by light. According to University of California at Santa Barbara researcher Norm Nelson, nobody’s done this before.

“We got into the study of CDOM by accident,” said Nelson. “My colleagues discovered the presence of an unknown factor that controlled the color of the Sargasso Sea off Bermuda that wasn’t phytoplankton [tiny marine plants], which we’d always assumed was the most important. I made some measurements that demonstrated it was CDOM, and a whole new area of research opened up for us.”

Scientists point out our flock mentality

flockThis has been talked about for ever, and as much as we admit it or not, a big mass of people is in fact quite easy to manipulate, because of our… flock mentality. Results from a study at the University of Leeds show that it takes a minority of just five per cent to influence a crowd’s direction. The other 95% will follow the path of the 5%, without even realizing this.

The findings could have a major significance for directing the flow of large crowds especially in disaster cases, when it’s crucial to evaluate how the mass of people will react.

“There are many situations where this information could be used to good effect,” says Professor Jens Krause of the University’s Faculty of Biological Sciences. “At one extreme, it could be used to inform emergency planning strategies and at the other, it could be useful in organising pedestrian flow in busy areas.”

They conducted a series of experiments in which groups of people were asked to walk randomly around a large hall. A few of them received more exact instructions about where they were supposed to go. They were not allowed to talk with each other, but they were supposed to stay within an arm’s reach of any other person. So the results were not that surprising, when you stop to think about it: the ‘informed individuals’ were followed by others in the crowd.

“We initially started looking at consensus decision making in humans because we were interested in animal migration, particularly birds, where it can be difficult to identify the leaders of a flock,” says Professor Krause. “But it just goes to show that there are strong parallels between animal grouping behaviour and human crowds.”

How to recover from a mass extinction

saber tooth
About 250 million years ago, at the end of the Permian, and event caused a mass extinction which killed over 90 percent of the life on Earth. Ecosystems were destroyed and organisms were left to recover; it was the closest life came to being wiped out ever.

The full recovery of those ecosystems took at least 30 million years, according to new research from the University of Bristol. Previous studies indicated that life just bounced back relatively quickly in the form of ‘disaster taxa’ (opportunistic organisms that filled the empty ecospace left behind by the extinction), such as the hardy Lystrosaurus, a barrel-chested herbivorous animal, about the size of a pig.

But this latest research led by Sarda Sahney and Professor Michael Benton at the University of Bristol and recently published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B indicates that rich ecosystems with a big diversity of species emerged only after 30 million years. Sahney said:

“Our research shows that after a major ecological crisis, recovery takes a very long time. So although we have not yet witnessed anything like the level of the extinction that occurred at the end of the Permian, we should nevertheless bear in mind that ecosystems take a very long time to fully recover.”

They analyzed the recovery of tetrapods – animals with a backbone and four legs, such as amphibians and reptiles – and found that the dramatic restructurations which took place took a lot longer than initially anticipated. Professor Benton explained:

“Diversity is most commonly assessed by tallying the number of taxa on a global scale, but these studies are subject to the vagaries of sampling. By examining well-preserved and well-studied faunas, the taxonomic and ecological recovery of communities after the Permian extinction event can be examined more accurately, and the problems of geological bias are largely avoided.”